Spain's ruling Popular Party has called a crisis meeting over the explosive publication of hand-written ledgers purportedly showing secret payments to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other top party officials.
Rajoy called an extraordinary meeting of the party's national executive committee on Saturday, a party spokeswoman said Friday, after the report by leading daily El Pais ignited a political firestorm.
The 57-year-old grey-bearded prime minister was holding a weekly cabinet meeting with his top ministers in Madrid.
Anger boiled over in the public and in the media over the allegations that the party had dished out undisclosed money from donors, including developers, to Rajoy and other top party officials for decades.
Popular Party secretary general Maria Dolores de Cospedal on Thursday rejected the allegations, saying the ledgers were full of falsehoods, but she failed to stem the mushrooming scandal.
The story broke at a time that Rajoy's right-leaning government is imposing an austerity squeeze on Spaniards suffering a jobless rate of 26 percent -- the highest since the return of democracy after the death in 1975 of General Francisco Franco.
Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside Popular Party headquarters in Madrid on Thursday night to denounce the supposed secret payments, chanting: "Thief" and "Resign" and calling Rajoy "delinquent".
El Pais cited ledgers kept by two former party treasurers, Alvaro Lapuerta and Luis Barcenas, apparently showing the payments including 25,200 euros ($34,000) a year to Rajoy between 1997 and 2008.
Most top officials named in the report said the allegations were false.
But El Pais said the head of the Senate, Garcia Escudero, admitted to the paper that he had legally repaid to the party a loan of five million pesetas in five instalments, which are reflected in the ledgers.
Barcenas, one of the supposed authors of the ledger, roundly denied the report, saying none of the payments listed by El Pais were actually made while he had oversight of the party's accounts.
A handwriting expert, Begona Slocker, compared the ledgers to a letter by Barcenas and said they were written by the same hand, in a report on private television station Telecinco. A study by the Spanish Society of Graphology for Cadena Ser radio came to the same conclusion.
Barcenas, who served for one year as party treasurer and 19 as assistant treasurer, is already under investigation following reports he had stashed up to 22 million euros ($29 million) in Swiss bank accounts until 2009.
"The affair is of extraordinary political gravity and leaves the Popular Party and the government on the ropes. They must not only collaborate with the justice department but also show absolute transparency," said an editorial in centre-right daily El Mundo.
El Pais said the alleged fund was made up of donations, mostly from construction companies, adding that such payments would be legal as long as they were fully declared to the taxman.
One photograph in El Pais showed a supposed 1999 entry in the ledgers marked: "M. Rajoy - second semester", with a sum of 2.1 million pesetas (12,600 euros) on the outgoing column of the party's funds.
Former IMF managing director and senior Popular Party official Rodrigo Rato was shown receiving 2.28 million pesetas for the same period. He, too, denied the allegation.
Another front-page photograph from 2008 purportedly showed Cospedal receiving 7,500 euros for the third quarter of the year, a claim she flatly rejected.
The Popular Party has threatened to sue over the reports.
The leader of the main opposition Socialist Party, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, demanded that Rajoy answer two questions: whether he received the money and, if so, whether it was properly declared.
"He has to answer these himself, the head of the government, because we we have a very important crisis at this moment; a critical situation," Rubalcaba said, charging that Cospedal's denial lacked credibility.
Rajoy last month ordered an internal review of his party's finances, to be submitted to an external audit.
The announcement followed a report in conservative daily El Mundo that senior members of the party had received secret payments.
Rajoy took office in December 2011. He was the leader of the Popular Party in opposition between 2004 and 2011 and served as interior minister between 1996 and 2004 under then prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.